Behind the Screens
State Archives has biggest collection of film scripts
by PATRICK KURP
(Article reproduced with permission from the Gazette)
ALBANY --- Bill Evans awaits the definitive biography of Wallace Beery, and still carries an adolescent torch for Claudette Colbert.
Though trained in British military history, Evans knows the collected works of George Cukor with the intimacy of a cinematic lover. He's even fond of the Cisco Kid.
"Up here, I'm in hog heaven. Almost the whole damned history of movies is back there on the shelf --- even the dirty stuff. What they called gratuitous nudity, we call fun," said Evans, an associate archivist with the State Archives and Records Administration.
Part of Evans' job is to oversee the largest collection of film scripts in the world --- housed not in Hollywood or even Washington, D.C. (home of the second-largest collection, in the Library of Congress), but on Madison Avenue in Albany.
Stored here are case files on more than 73,000 films produced between 1921 and 1965, including 53,000 scripts. Most of the scripts from the silent era (the first sound feature, "The Jazz Singer," came in 1927) were not preserved.
Ironically, scholars and buffs can thank state censorship for rescuing from oblivion this mother lode of film history. For 44 years, state law required distributors to submit both movies and scripts to a panel of censors. Films deemed morally objectionable could be ordered cut or banned outright.
"It's very interesting what upset these idiot censors. It's delicious to see what they didn't like, how petty it all seems today," said Arthur Lennig, a film scholar at the State University of Albany.
In 1921, despite testimony in Albany from such movie luminaries as D.W. Griffth and William Fox, the Legislature created the Motion Picture Commission to review and license all films to be exhibited in the state. Signing the bill into law, Gov. Nathan L. Miller called it "the only way to remedy what everyone concedes has grown to be a very great evil."
For its first six years, the board consisted of three commissioners appointed by the governor. In 1927, as part of a general consolidation of state government, the commission was abolished and its duties transferred to the State Education Department, which set up the Motion Picture Division.
The division was mandated to censor material --- including movie posters and other advertising --- judged "obscene, indecent, immoral, inhuman, sacrilegious, or ... of such a character that its exhibition would tend to corrupt morals or to incite to crime."
On average, the censors banned six to eight films per year, and ordered another 10 percent trimmed before licenses were granted, according to archivist Richard Andress.
"We have everything here, from masterpieces to the real trash. They get real specific about the stuff they objected to. Everywhere you look there's some kind of story," he said.
With offices in New York City, Albany and Buffalo, the Motion Picture Division had a staff of about 20, including a director, six viewers and five inspectors. Most staff members, Andress said, were women, and most came out of the state's Civil Service ranks, without a background in film or law.
The case files, filling 2,880 gray cardboard boxes, are stored on the 3rd Floor of the State Museum. Pulled at random, a box from the spring of 1934 is typically eclectic.
Among the 19 titles in Box 1821, Shelf 2, Unit 46, Section D, are three films in Italian (including one by Fellini), two in Spanish and on each in Chinese and Hungarian. The English-language films include "Johnny Dark," "Hell Raiders of the Deep," "Jazz Dance" (a musical short featuring Pee Wee Russell and Willie "The Lion" Smith), "Heat Wave," "Pigs Is Pigs" (a Disney cartoon). "Leather and Leather,:" "Big Scot" (about a horse) and "Dawn Must Come."
Most files for foreign films include scripts in both English and the language of origin, including Indonesian, Arabic, Danish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Bohemian, Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew, German and Greek. distributors of foreign films prized the New York Market, especially after World War II, because of New York City's polyglot population.
In English, the archive contains screenplays by, among other noteworthies, Ben Hecht, Nathanael West, S.J. Perelman, Dorothy Parker, William Faulkner, Tenessee Williams, Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, Vladimir Nabokov and W.C. Fields.
A scholarly study of these files could trace shifting American attitudes toward sex, religion and morality. In 1921, for instance, a Pathe newsreel of women in bathing suits was censored because it "tended to corrupt morals." Within two years, bathing beauties were a silver screen commonplace.
On Aug. 2, 1921, a censor rejected "A Model Made" because "it was of no educational or artistic value, not especially entertaining, indecent of such a character that its exhibition would tend to corrupt morals."
That same year, the censors demanded cuts in "Brownie's Baby Doll" --- a shot of ice cream melting down a child's leg --- and "Snooky's Fresh Heir" --- a scene showing a chimp's diaper change. They also ordered a subtitle cut from "Moonlight Follies": "A dimple in the knee is worth two in the chin."
"Censors have a prurient interest in the first place. They're the ones with the dirty minds," said Lennig, who used the film archive while researching his study of Bela Lugosi.
The frequency of state Motion Picture Division cuts declined after Hollywood set up its own self-censoring body, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America --- commonly known as "the Association." At first ineffectual, the group cracked down in 1934 when a more stringent Hollywood Production Code was adopted.
Thereafter, most films carrying the code's approval were quickly licensed in New York. There were exceptions: The notorious Czech film from 1933, "Ecstasy," starring Hedy Lamarr, was licensed in 1940 only after 14 court actions and major changes in the film's content.
Andress, who indexed the case files 15 years ago, said the Motion Picture Division in 1928 ordered cuts in 448 films; in 1944, 90 films; and in 1957, 44 films.
By the 1950s, directors and producers were increasingly emboldened to challenge the division's authority. For instance, the file for "The Man With the Golden Arm," directed in 1955 by Otto Preminger, is especially thick with contention.
Starring Frank Sinatra as junkie Frankie Machine and based on the Nelson Algren novel, the film was the first Hollywood feature to depict narcotics addiction with anything like candor. Protracted disputes between Preminger and the Censors resulted in the excision of a brief scene showing "the putting of water drops via an eye dropper into the spoon and the heating of the spoon" --- pretty tame fare by today`s standards.
The Motion Picture Division consigned especially provocative films to "special case files," arranged by subject: abortion ("Chained Girls"), birth control, burlesque, childbirth, immorality and perversion (including Ed Wood's camp classic, "Glen or Glenda"), narcotics, nudity and social hygiene ("Damaged Goods," "Are You Fit to Marry?").
Among the last films reviewed by the division, in April 1965, was "Madame Olga's Massage Parlor." The reviewer, Maurice V. Tofami, snidely referred to it as "this seven-reel cinematic opus," and ordered 309 of its 6,030 feet excised.
In his report, Tofami objected to repeated shots of bare breasts and "occasional views of some of the girls in which their buttocks can be discerned through sleazy panties."
Also on file are reports from Motion Picture Division inspectors (often retired or off duty police officers), who visited theaters to verify compliance. On April 2, 1965, for instance, an inspector named John Bartnick visited the Leland Theatre in Albany.
Three features, all lacking the division seal, were being shown: "Warm Nights and Hot Pleasures," "The Weird Lovers" and "Moroccan Rivieras." After detailing objectionable scenes in the films, Bartnick issued the theater a summons. Whether the films were shown that night remains unclear.
Official state censorship ended in 1965, when the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a Maryland ban on a Danish film, "A Stranger Knocks," and ordered changes in the appeals process of all state film censoring boards. When New York's Legislature failed to enact the necessary changes in the law, the Board of Regents discontinued the Motion Picture Division, effective Sept. 30, 1965.
Originally, the film archives, including scripts, were slated for disposal. However, the division's last director, the aptly named Hugh Flick, insisted that the records be turned over to the State Library. They remained in an Albany warehouse until 1978, when they were transferred to the State Museum.
The Motion Picture Division's legacy lives on at the State Archives. Evans and Andress receive 30 to 40 calls a week regarding the film collection --- mostly from video distributors seeking scripts for foreign-language dubbing. A Kuwaiti, for instance, recently sought everything starring Gene Autry.
They also deal with film scholars, such as the one from California who recently wanted to verify the titles in an early Frank Capra picture, "Matinee Idol."
"The Public doesn't know about this stuff, but people in the industry do. It's mostly our little secret and I love it," Evans said.